To understand what happened outside Coolock Garda Station on Wednesday night you need to understand what happened earlier that evening in Santry. To understand what happened in Santry you need to understand what led to protesters being before the High Court that afternoon. To understand what led to the High Court you need to understand what has been happening in the Kilbarrack, Ayrfield and Donoghmede areas of north Dublin, for months. It is not a simple story.
This general area, where most of the protests have taken place in north Dublin, is made up of a number of neighbouring housing estates. Since at least April people have been protesting in and around several estates, against the installation of water meters.
These protests have taken a number of forms;
- People have been standing on the stop-valves outside homes where meter installers need to dig up the pathway to access the water pipes. There they have been refusing to move, preventing meter installers from working.
- People have been standing in front of the installers’ vehicles, or slowing them to a crawl by walking very, very slowly in front. They have stopped their access and exit from the estates.
- People have also been preventing or slowing meter installers from moving equipment between stop-valves, locations or vehicles and parking vehicles over stop-valves.
These are organised protests in the sense that there is a lot of communication between the people involved. The communication is largely done through Facebook pages - both public and private – and group text alerts. A core group protest on a daily basis at the entry points of various estates. There they keep watch for Irish Water and notify people in the other estates when they spot something. They stand out beside the main road, often with tea and biscuits, often from 7am. In the few days I was there I saw several people stop and give them teabags and chocolates.
Other people drive around outside the estates and will follow vans which appear to be providing services for Irish Water. These vans, from what I could see, are operated by GMC Sierra, which has been contracted by Irish Water to install meters in the area.
This core group of daily protesters – maybe 80 regulars – are not a homogenous group in any real sense. The vast majority, though not all, are local residents. The vast majority, though not all, are not politically aligned. The vast majority are not in any way interested in causing trouble.
There are politically aligned people there from a number of groups, but having spent several days talking to and observing them, no one element appears to lead the whole group or even large elements of the group. There are no political banners at these protests. There is no singular ideology among the regulars; republican, socialist or otherwise. Many would be perceived to be of the Left but, by their own admission, many would not have even voted at the last general election. Several said to me they voted Fianna Fáil or Labour in recent elections.
The politically aligned who regularly turn up to the daily protests are from a number of groupings. The local Anti Austerity Alliance councillor, Michael O’Brien, is a regular attendee, as is Councillor John Lyons of People Before Profit. There are a few Sinn Féin members there. There are a small number of regular attendees from Eirigi, a socialist republican group. People might recall Eirigi from the time one of their then-councillors threw red paint at then-health minister Mary Harney in 2010. There are a two or three people from Republican Network for Unity who also attend regularly. The RNU describe themselves on their website as “Ex POWs opposed to the promotion of the British PSNI”. The RNU members I spoke to live locally and by all accounts have been attending the daily protests for months.
The ‘Dublin Says No’ group are prominent, they are broadly anti-austerity and seem to have grown out of the north Dublin area. They have an active Youtube channel which gives you some idea of where they are coming from, and how they see things. It contains a number of videos of their members following politicians including Enda Kenny, Brendan Howlin, and Michael Noonan along Dublin streets. Their questions to Michael Noonan include “how do you feel about screwing the Irish people?” Here is footage of one of their leading members standing on a countertop in the GPO reading the Proclamation of the Republic. Many of the other videos on the channel are from water protests in the north Dublin area.
From what I observed, none of these groupings or individuals hold full or even large sway on the wider protest. That includes the local councillors. The only thing that seems to unite people there – beyond an opposition to water charges – seems to be disillusionment with mainstream political parties. The attitude at the daily protests is ‘each to their own’, according to all involved and from what I observed. Councillor Michael O’Brien of the Anti Austerity Alliance told me “no one defers to me here and I defer to no one”. One of the non-aligned protesters told me for my piece for Monday’s Prime Time, “we don’t want any representation from any political party, we don’t want any representation from any union”.
In the last few months the protests in north Dublin have become more controversial. Gardai have removed a number of protesters from areas when they refused to leave. There have been a number of arrests. At least one protester has taken a case against a member of An Garda to the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission, it is currently being examined. There has been a stronger Garda presence at the protests than previously. Things have become heated several times. Various videos posted online show Gardai physically dispersing protests. Insults and taunts directed at Gardai are audible on footage. Cllr Michael O’Brien says that in the last few months “community relations with the Gards has gone down the swanny”.
During October GMC Sierra, the meter installation contractor, hired a security company to gather footage of the protests. Part of the footage gathered was presented in evidence to the High Court on Wednesday afternoon. Much of the hearing that day related to a request from GMC Sierra for an extension to an injunction already in place. Irish Water supported GMC Sierra in their action.
That day the courtroom was packed. People had to wait fifteen minutes before other cases were completed and enough people left before they could even get inside. I had to sit on the floor to type notes. The Courts Service staff brought out a plug-in fan to keep air circulating in the room.
The court had previously granted an injunction order preventing anyone aware of the order from “assaulting, harassing, intimidating, endangering or otherwise unlawfully interfering with or obstructing the [meter installation] workers”. Nine named protesters were before the court that day, video footage was presented of a number of them as evidence of a need to extend the order, to make it effective. Counsel for GMC Sierra said the footage showed them interfering with or obstructing work. Not all footage provided to the court was shown on Wednesday. What was shown included footage of people standing with their back to vans and one clip where a pipe appeared to be removed from behind the barrier of a GMC Sierra workstation where work had paused. There was no sound on the video footage.
Affidavits read in court said GMC Sierra workers have been subject to “assault”, “racial abuse”, “being spat at” and that there had been criminal damage to GMC Sierra property, including tires slashed on vehicles. These affidavits did not attribute any specific acts to any individual. The protesters I spoke to who were before the court said they didn’t relate to them.
An extension to the injunction order was sought to prevent anyone with knowledge of the order from coming within 20 metres of a GMC Sierra work location. Counsel for GMC Sierra said the company respected the right to lawfully protest and that the extension to the order would not prevent such protests. They said it was sought to ensure the health and safety of the public, protesters and workers. The protesters named said they act peacefully and within their constitutional rights and denied any wrongdoing.
The High Court agreed to the extension of the order. On hearing the decision a number of people at the back of the court jeered. One man shouted “what about our constitutional rights?” towards Justice Paul Gilligan, who was presiding. The judge took the unusual step of addressing him, saying the decision balanced the right to lawfully work with the constitutional right to lawfully protest. He said the order would allow for residents and passing traffic to access and go about their business.
What happened after the hearing ended is insightful of the nature of the group of regular protesters. There was 50-plus people in attendance in court to support them, another group was outside waiting on people to come out. On the quays outside the Four Courts afterwards some of the daily regulars felt their next move should be to block traffic in protest against the decision, and the situation in general. They set about walking slowly up the quays with traffic behind them. A number of other regulars said they saw this as counter-productive and unnecessary, they left and headed for home. None took issue with the others’ decision, ‘each to their own’ was the attitude.
Around the same time Enda Kenny was leaving an event at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, just across the motorway from Coolock. The Clinic was launching a research foundation and there was a meal for invited guests. Some of the regular protesters had travelled across to the Clinic, they said they planned to slow-walk or sit down in front of An Taoiseach’s car as he left. RTE News footage shows there were scuffles involving Gardai and protesters as An Taoiseach’s car left. Phone footage from there was soon on Facebook and being quickly shared around the anti-water meter pages. Within three hours there was a large group gathered outside Coolock Garda Station.
I got to Coolock Garda Station around 7pm. Both ends of the road the Station is on were blocked to traffic. Lines of Gardai stood shoulder-to-shoulder at each of the two entries to the Station. There was a lot people gathered, over the course of the night somewhere between 200 and 300 people maybe more (no one was counting) turned up. There were a lot of familiar faces who I’d met previously at the daily protests and even at the Four Courts earlier. Others I who I had phoned on the way down said they were staying away.
Just before my arrival Gardai had used pepper spray against a number of protesters. A senior Garda said it was in response to an assault on an officer. Some people in attendance had thrown debris towards the Garda station. A protester I knew from the court and daily protests said “things got out of hand”, telling me “a few young lads threw bricks”. A Garda described them to me as “missiles”. Clearly from footage put up online since, including on the Dublin Says No Youtube page, it was a tense situation.
Most of the people outside the Garda station were standing around. A section were chanting and shouting insults towards Gardai. A smaller section were getting up-close, eye-to-eye with lines of Gardai, shouting insults. The vast majority of the faces I knew from the daily protests were in the groups standing around. A number – 5 or so - were part of the group chanting at Gardai.
There were a lot of kids there on bikes, winding in and out of the crowd. There were a few groups of teenagers whose main interest seemed to be winding up Gardai. There were older women in big coats and gloves, out with flasks. There were young men just hanging around.
There were a number of people there who I knew from speaking to protesters previously as republicans. Two local members of Republican Network for Unity were there. I later learned one had been pepper-sprayed earlier, he said he was picking a woman up from the ground at the time who herself had been sprayed by Gardai. Eirigi had a small number of members there. When I arrived one man who I recognised as an Eirigi member appeared to be trying to calm the situation with the help of a non-politically aligned regular of the daily protests.
Someone decided the crowd should march down to the Malahide Road, a section of dual carriageway about 200 yards from the Garda station. The crowd wandered down. They blocked the road, some were chanting “from the river to the sea, Irish water will be free!” further to the back others were asking me about the Champions League.
The road was blocked for a few minutes, then they walked back up to the Garda station, again there was chanting. Half an hour or so later they again headed back down to the dual carriageway. The crowd flowed around the traffic which was slowly making its way in the opposite direction. One group of young men saw a white van in the traffic. They started shouting, saying it was an Irish Water van, banging on the bonnet and rocking it from side to side. It didn’t seem to be an Irish Water van. After a minute or so one of the Dublin Says No group persuaded them to stop and allow the van to drive on.
A small group of men in their thirties - including one of the daily regulars - led what by now had turned into a march, down one side of the Malahide Road. In traffic on the opposite side of the road someone spotted a Garda car. A group of young men ran over to it, across the median of the dual carriageway. About six or seven men started banging on the window and shouting at the two Gardai inside. In response to what they were seeing a number of women and other young men behind began to shout “peaceful protest, peaceful protest!” The Garda car accelerated off when traffic cleared.
The crowd marched down the road and looped around a roundabout, heading back towards the Garda Station. By now it was after 9pm. The group was starting to dwindle. At the back of the march two RNU members walked, not far away two local councillors walked too. There were maybe 100 people left. As they got back to the Garda Station someone spray painted “Bastards” and a swastika sign on the wall outside. A few minutes later a teenager was arrested for attempting to climb the station wall. He was released soon after. By 10pm the night had all but ended. On my way home I passed the unneeded riot vans positioned a discreet distance away from the station.
The following morning people were back out around the estates. Several of the regulars were upset at what they had seen on Facebook, both in relation to outside the Garda station and from Santry. On some of the public Facebook pages there had been pictures of individual Gardai posted with titles like “Ms Pepperspray”. In comments under the posts names of Gardai had been posted. Threats had been made by commenters against specific members of An Garda.
There was a nervousness; ‘what will happen after last night? How will the Gardai handle the injunction? How will I handle the injunction?’
Some regulars told me they were prepared to continue trying to prevent the vans entering the estates but that if they got in they would only physically prevent work on their own stop-valves. Others said they were waiting to see how the Gardai would handle the situation with the 20 metre exclusion zone, before deciding. Others said it was a point of principle, that they’d go to prison over the water meters.
There was discussion, but no one view was dismissed. Like before it was each to their own.